Victor’s father has died. Victor needs to go to Phoenix to claim the remains. And the pickup truck. And the money in the savings account. The Tribal Council gives him $100 for the trip. It’s not enough. Thomas Build-the-Fire, the storyteller that no one wants to listen to, offers to loan Victor the rest. Only condition: Thomas gets to go along.
Having no other options, Victor assents. The road trip begins. As Sherman Alexie’s “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” demonstrates, however, not all road trips are romps. Nor action filled. That’s not to say that this trip is without incident. There is a supremely flexible gymnast on an airplane. There’s also a jack rabbit squashed on a highway. It’s not The Odyssey or Treasure Island, but it’s something I suppose.
But action isn’t really what this story is about. The two things that most jump out at me are culture and character. The cultural aspect is fascinating. Alexie’s portrayal of life on the Spokane Indian reservation is vivid. It’s humorous at times, tragic at others. It is no doubt what draws many to his work. However, I think that at the heart of this story there’s also an excellent exploration of character.
This story looks at two men with a troubled past, Victor and Thomas. As children they had been friends, but by their teens they were no longer. Thomas was odd and annoying, his storytelling had scared off the whole community. Victor eventually rejected him. He was no longer compatible with Victor’s lifestyle or identity. It would seem that the mystical side of Thomas represented aspects of Indian life that Victor had trouble accepting. Years after the two had stopped being friends, Victor drunkenly attacked Thomas, as if to reiterate just how incompatible they had become.
For this story, those events are all past. In the present—and this story jumps quite a bit between present and past—the animosity is largely gone. When the two are alone, when they are off the reservation, their bond reinvigorates. They behave like friends again. Thomas supports Victor at a difficult moment, the return to his dead father’s trailer. Victor apologizes for his drunken, teen-aged assault. Thomas shares a story about his own encounter with Victor’s father, an event that ended with his pledge to watch out for Victor.
Heartening as these moments may be, one knows not to be too optimistic about a permanent reunion. The mission, after all, is to return back to the very setting that pulled the two apart. And, the story’s ending does not veer away from this reality. The relationship as expressed on the road must end. But, it’s not without all hope. Something between Victor and Thomas, it would seem, can never be completely eradicated.
“The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” by Sherman Alexie